SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and five other Formula One drivers gave no reply when asked at a Chinese Grand Prix news conference whether they might have any moral difficulty racing in Bahrain next week.
The six were not alone in their silence on Thursday, with most others also swerving away from any public comment on the sensitive subject of competing in the Gulf kingdom against a backdrop of political unrest and violence.
Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher, the sport's most successful driver, gave only a firm 'Yes' and 'No' to questions at a Mercedes briefing asking whether he would be comfortable going to Bahrain and had any qualms.
"I don't want to get into that at all," Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen told reporters in Caterham's hospitality area. "Whatever the team decides, I'll do that."
With some of the teams known to be unhappy about going to Bahrain, nobody wanted to inflame the situation by taking a stance.
It was Red Bull's plain-talking Australian Mark Webber who filled the silence, pre-empting any questions by looking around at the reporters and opening with the words "So. Bahrain?".
The subject of that race, cancelled last year due to a bloody crackdown condemned by human rights activists who have branded this year's event as a 'tool of repression', has hung over the season and provided the main topic of conversation in the Shanghai paddock.
"Ultimately it is a car race. There are a hell of a lot of people in the world who don't have a clue there is a grand prix in Bahrain next weekend so let's not get too wrapped up in our own bubble about how important it is," said Webber, choosing his words slowly and carefully.
"Things can get called off in a flash."
Webber held up no hope for the drivers having any say in the matter. They would discuss it in their briefing, said the Australian, but that would achieve nothing.
All the talk and speculation had been distracting, he added, but everyone wanted to do the right thing.
"Ultimately we are all human. We have morals. We have ways we see things," said Webber who was a rare voice speaking out against the race last year when more than 30 people died in a crushing of pro-democracy protests led by mostly Shi'ite demonstrators seeking more say in government.
"I have tried to watch the news to get the most balanced view that I can possibly get without getting too corrupted by false information," continued the 35-year-old.
"I want to race. That is what I would like to go there and do. But saying that you cannot ignore the fact that all of us, in the backs of our minds, want it to go down smoothly and don't want it to be involved in the unrest.
"We want the people out there to support our race. That is why it is so sensitive," said Webber.
Bahrain's Sunni Muslim rulers have presented the grand prix as a unifying force, as well as one that brings in between $400-500 million indirectly to the local economy, and are determined it should go ahead.
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has declared it on, unless the local sporting authorities call it off, and any late cancellation now is likely to be forced by events rather than any ethical considerations.
While Formula One wants to make friends and win new audiences, it has not shown much concern in the past about where it races, travelling to grands prix in South Africa under Apartheid and Argentina during the rule by military junta in the 1980s and routinely following the money.
Taking a stance against rights abuses in Bahrain while racing in China could lead to accusations of double-standards, given the latter's record of jailing dissidents, while the sport can hardly claim any moral high ground after the headline-grabbing scandals of recent years.
It was Bahrain that baulked a few years ago at welcoming Max Mosley after revelations about the former FIA president's sado-masochistic sex sessions with prostitutes.
"We don't deal with the religion or the politics," declared Ecclestone on Thursday. "It's not our business running the country."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)